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Andrea Ponsor, President and CEO, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future

12 min read

In 2003, 13 of the largest nonprofit affordable housing providers, who today collectively manage 147,500 units, formed the Stewards of Housing for the Future (SAHF) to collaborate on best practices and advocate for change in Washington, DC and across the affordable housing ecosystem.

Leveraging its members’ subject matter expertise and on-the-ground experiences, SAHF (pronounced SAFE) has published numerous resources, tools and step-by-step guides on a range of topics.

Leading these efforts is Andrea Ponsor, who joined SAHF in 2016 as executive vice president of policy and was promoted to president and CEO in 2020.

Prior to joining SAHF, Ponsor served as the federal policy director for Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and before that she was an attorney in private practice at what is now Hessel Aluise and O’Leary for seven years representing lenders, investors and developers.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Ponsor to learn how the past year impacted resident services and what emerging priorities SAHF will focus on in 2022.

Tax Credit Advisor: Some of our readers may not be familiar with SAHF. What led to its formation in 2003? What issues or viewpoints do your members promote that distinguishes SAHF from other affordable housing advocates?

Andrea Ponsor: There was a recognition by our members, and the CEOs of those member companies, that they have a unique perspective of being very laser-focused on mission and having the flexibility that comes with being a nonprofit to focus on mission. SAHF members are very large organizations that operate on a multi-state level. They put the residents at the center of everything they do and fuel our collaborative policy and practice work through a very candid peer exchange among 13 very close organizations.

TCA: I’d like to shift to resident services. What were some of the biggest adjustments that your members had to make during COVID? 

AP: There were many, but one of the things that SAHF members share in common is a deep commitment to leverage housing as a platform for improving lives. Resident services are very common with onsite coordination at two-thirds of the properties operated by SAHF members. Some things didn’t change. The value of the service coordinator and that trusted relationship is a critical part of keeping people stable. In the early months of COVID, service coordinators stepped in to close gaps and help with services that couldn’t be delivered given all of the restrictions we were observing to keep one another safe. Services coordinators and front-line staff were doing food deliveries, helping people apply for low-cost Internet, figuring out how to access telemedicine and playing digital navigator for folks who needed help connecting with friends and family. There has also been some conversion to online service delivery and connecting with residents. Another big piece of it was leveraging the relationship with the tenants and the communities and stepping in to connect residents to rental assistance, vaccines and information. As we returned to a new normal, we saw gaps in mental health services available to residents. Residents were traumatized by what was going on around them and a lot of energy has been spent understanding how to engage with residents and help them connect to the things that they need.

TCA: Will any of these policies remain in place when things return to normal?

AP: Yes and no. In many respects, we’re still trying to understand what that’s going to look like. Certainly, that migration for all of us to online in our daily lives, some of that will stick. We’ll see more online service delivery and perhaps more robust offerings for residents, because there is greater interest in that. But first, we have to solve the digital divide that impacts so many residents of affordable housing. It’s just not affordable for residents to obtain the kind of connections that they need to fully avail themselves of those services, so we need some property-wide solutions. On the other hand, there’s a big hunger to return to in-person. That’s what we’re hearing from a lot of residents who say, ‘This is great, we appreciate what you’re doing, but we’re done with Zoom.’ The other thing that we’re all still very much figuring out, but that I hope will last, is the increased focus, and very appropriately so, on racial equity and closing the gaps on inequities, in general. Folks are really thinking differently about how they do their work. If people are serious about moving the needle, then they need to understand that how we did things before is not going to work.

TCA: Can you be a little more specific about what your members are thinking about in helping improve racial equity?

AP: I think it’s quite broad. We recently, as a collaborative, entered into a racial equity pledge to think about different ways that we can advance racial equity in our work. There’s first and foremost the things collectively we have to do to just make sure that housing is affordable to all people and understanding that we have systemically made homes less affordable and less accessible to people of color. We also need to think about how we treat people when services are being delivered, how the rules of our programs are designed, and the way we serve people may be informed by practices that are not equitable and have been backed with racist assumptions about why people do what they do and how people behave. Thinking differently and giving residents more choices and opportunities to inform the process is something all of our members are thinking more about.

TCA: SAHF offers a certification program that recognizes property owners that excel at providing resident services. What can you tell me about this program and is it something that companies that don’t belong to SAHF should consider? 

AP: Absolutely, so the certification program is called CORES, or Certified Organization for Resident Engagement and Services. It’s something we’re really proud of. The certification builds on a deep body of work focused on resident engagement and services. It’s a way of thinking about how you take a systems approach to consistently offer resident services and being very people-centered. It was built from a community of practitioners, not just SAHF members, but housing providers and partners who think a lot about enriching housing with services. Out of that grew this certification, which recognizes organizations that have a high capacity for, and deep commitment to, delivering resident services and engaging residents in that process. There are about 31 certified organizations around the country. Only about a third of those are SAHF members, so it’s definitely open to others. With the certification, it’s not just a good housekeeping seal evidencing capacity and commitment to services. Having the certification opens doors to incentives and financing, including Fannie Mae’s Healthy Housing Rewards Program, which provides an interest rate benefit that can generate more cash flow to help support resident services. We’re also seeing CORES recognized in Qualified Allocation Plans as a way of evidencing that capacity to provide resident services for a deal you may not own or have developed yet. We’re also increasingly hearing from lenders and investors that when they want to do a service-rich deal, they look for organizations that bear the CORES certification.

TCA: Are there any ongoing requirements to maintain the certification?

AP: It’s a five-year certification. Certified organizations are very resident-centered, and data driven. They’re thinking about the people and communities that they serve and what they need. That process of reflection is something we hope already exists. We’ve heard from a lot of folks going through this process that it can be valuable in evaluating their own systems and thinking about how they might do things differently. We are coming to understand that there’s some benefit to the certification process in and of itself, not just getting the certification, but the rigorous process of evaluating current processes and discovering opportunities to improve them.

TCA: Concerns over the Delta variant have arisen lately and the impact it could have on the elderly, even those who have been vaccinated. What precautions are your members taking to protect their tenants and employees? 

AP: SAHF members collaborated early on with healthcare providers, public health departments and others to try and bring clinics to the properties and through those clinics help thousands of residents. Members have also used these opportunities to get their employees vaccinated. We continue to see these outreach efforts. Our members are using their resident services staff and others to educate residents on the vaccines and looking at opportunities to pair other programming with vaccination events. For example, if one of our members has a back-to-school backpack drive, they may try to offer vaccines for eligible adults and children. The response to COVID varies by jurisdiction. Certainly, everyone is being circumspect before they reopen spaces and go back to in-person events. Summertime has been great to be able to do things outside and be creative while socially distancing. We had all of last year to learn how to do some of that. We’re drawing on those lessons now and continuing to pivot.

TCA: Your organization gathers a lot of research that’s used to advocate for new policies and instill best practices. What are some highlights from the past year that you’d like to share?

AP: What the last year has shown us is that there’s a dire need to expand resources for affordable homes. We can’t as a society be healthy and stable if we don’t all have a safe affordable place to live. We have tens of millions of people at risk of housing instability and eviction because their home wasn’t affordable in the first place, because it was all very tenuous. Landlords and service coordinators have really stepped up and responded to emergencies and provided solutions. Service coordinators closed gaps and landlords brought the resources to come up with solutions for keeping people in stable housing. There are a lot of great stories not being told of folks working very hard together. The other issue we need to focus on is the vital importance of our agency partners, whether it’s state housing finance agencies (HFAs) or local governments, and the need for a delivery system that responds to emergencies and provides a safety net for folks beyond what we do in our usual housing programs. Thinking about how we can strengthen our partnerships with agencies is another lesson we are looking at closely.

TCA: Can you elaborate on what you mean by strengthening HFAs? 

AP: HFAs and local government have been fantastic partners in working to get rental assistance out and marshaling resources to support the affordable housing sector throughout the crisis. However, for many housing agencies, especially local governments, it’s a challenge to turn on a dime to stand up new programs. We need to be thinking long-term about how we as housing providers can partner with state and local agencies and advocate for policies that create strong, well-staffed agencies with the flexibility and funding to respond to emergencies, as well as do the excellent jobs they do in normal times.

TCA: Looking ahead into 2022, what do believe will be the biggest issues SAHF members will have to contend with? 

AP: It’s going to continue to be a really dynamic environment. Particularly for SAHF members, they’re not doing business as usual. There has been this increased awareness and focus on creating more equitable communities and dismantling systemic racism. There’s a desire to do better and to question and test what has been done previously. I think we’ll continue to grapple with that and to find new ways of doing things while putting residents front and center. It will be challenging to keep important resources flowing and people housed as things return to normal. Also, there will need to be a lot of creativity around rent repayment agreements and service delivery. That mission commitment is going to be really important. I think capacity too, not just in responding to residents, but we’ve had this sort of interesting pile on happen in where we now have some deferred issues around rent collections and maintenance at properties. There’s a lot we need to address for front-line staff and asset managers. At the same time, there have been delays in construction pipelines. Hopefully, new resources are coming, both through federal recovery packages and infrastructure packages. We are going to need development capacity too. Everybody I know seems to be hiring right now. The ability to take good care of ourselves and our people, while meeting the demand and growing our teams, I think is going to be a significant challenge.

TCA: You were appointed president and CEO just under two years ago. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned over that time?

AP: If we really want to be impactful in the work we do creating homes and empowering people, we need to keep the resident at the center, not the real estate or the return, but really focus on what we’re doing for people and for one another. There are no shortcuts, no magic tricks. You’ve got to focus on the people. More broadly, I think I’ve learned the importance of rest. This is a marathon, not a sprint, in our industry.

TCA: Thank you for your time. I have one final question. Who is Andrea Ponsor?

AP: I consider myself an advocate. I understand firsthand, through lived experience, the importance of a stable home and have committed my career to advancing policies and resources to make sure everybody has that quality home that can be a platform for the thriving and healthy life that they want.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.